Students Staff

Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Response by Ben Okri

An address: Kinetic Nostalgia on a graduation

It was the beginning of a new life. I had my first novel coming out. Some said I had no need to go to University.  Others wanted me to go to Oxford or Cambridge.  A friend even offered me a fast track entry through those famous gates.   But it was summer and I was doing the rounds, going to universities,  to hear what they had to offer.  Essex was my first stop. Destiny, I have noticed, tends to like first thoughts.   Not always, but often.  At the session where prospective students were being told about the uni, the lecturer addressing us said:  “Essex is the thinking man and woman’s muppet show.” 

The muppet show was big at the time, and I kind of liked them.  They were crazy, but the show worked. They were free. I was hooked; I didn’t go to another university.  This was my last stop.

Well, what happened afterwards changed my life.  I got a crash course in internationalism. I met people from just about every continent and country in the world. I encountered philosophies, styles, attitudes, from all corners of the earth.  I lost my detached relationship to life, and become engaged to action. I got a thorough briefing in politics of all kinds, anarchism, communism, capitalism – you name it.  I brushed up against it.  I saw more great and bad films than you’d see in a lifetime.  I met weirdos, and  had to find  my way to out-weird them. I met music-heads, literature-geeks, theatre-freaks,  destroyers of television sets, plumy-voiced sedentaries, working class fire-breathing Trotskyists and the coolest Afro-Caribbean geezers and the most beautiful girls in the world.  I acquired a red beret, and it never left my head for seven years.  I ran for office, and the communists betrayed me at the last minute, thank God, and I lost by seven votes.  I wrote and directed and acted in my own plays - how bad can you get ?  I fell in love. I breathed and lived a wild air of freedom, of mental freedom.  Defiance bristled in me as a tender style.  The lake charmed me. I haunted the bookshop. The fields are still rich with my dreams. My anxiety still props up William Morris tower.  I still own the best pool table in the bar. Somewhere, behind a door knob, “Use your pen, vote for Ben”  still teases for your support.  Here I learned to dream amongst people,  and to make those dreams real.  I believed one could do anything. I wrote poems, I began a prose-work that would later give rise,  by extended seed family,  to a significant lode of ancient gold, prized by enchanters and sorcerers.  I  wrote here with a demon and an angel in my heart. Once I stayed up drinking and writing and being merry for 72 hours. And often I went to lectures. I loved the courses. The art history blew my mind wide open to a world of dreams; the philosophy class strengthened an old foundation; the comparative literature course sent me ranging across all the fictions, and so till this day I am free in them all, and hold them the way you hold the reins of a damn good horse.  And Roger Moss’s Dante class gave me two great perceptions which I won’t share with you; (find your own !) but which opened a new light into the secret structure that holds the magic texts together.  Later I told him about it, and he didn’t much remember.  I guess life is what you find, what you discover, what you take, not what you are given.  Many are given gold and take away nothing. A few are given straw and take away a golden truth.

But then, haunting all this, was anxiety. My government couldn’t pay my fees. One day I had to leave. It was like leaving a mixed-up paradise that you’d got used to. In the world out there, gloom descended. Then darkness clouded my vision of the magic years. But, if one keeps ascending, striving for one’s personal truth, darkness passes, and after many years, an old joy returns, like a flower in a new spring.  What did I learn, what did I take away, what had those years seeded in me ? 

An abiding love of literature, freedom, playfulness, internationalism.  An abiding interest in ideas, in politics, in people.  A belief that we can act to change our world, that a single voice, a single light, a single significant fight matters more than the campaigns of the greatest generals. That one must be ever watchful, blessedly cussed, tenderly defiant, and wisely wilful.  One ought to have one’s own style, one’s own enlightened wildness. One ought never to grow old. One ought always to be free.  That’s the air I breathed here.  And education is much more than the books you read, the degrees you got, and all that stuff. An education is the greatest weapon for self-discovery, and for enlightenment. Nothing can stop a good mind when it has breathed an air of liberation, and been allowed to find, in its own muddling way, the secret keys to the great questions of  self,  our fellow human beings, and the mysteries of the Universe.  It’s not what you’re given, but what you find in the garden of your eternal youth - that is all that counts on earth -  take it from me - on this day of your magic initiation and graduation into the true business and art of living.  Good luck on your journey.  Uncover and earn your inheritance, and your bequest.

Remember that heaven dwells in these fields you leave behind, that will always be in your hearts. 

(Copyrights: Ben Okri, 7 July 2002.  All rights reserved.)